A popular argument for the existence of God is the moral argument. The argument is essentially that we experience objective good and evil, but that cannot exist without God. Evil cannot exist by itself since it is by nature the lack of or a corruption of something good. To call something bad implies there is a good, or a way things are supposed to be. Not just a way we want it to be, but a way it objectively ought to be. If God does not exist, what is the standard for that? What best explains morality? Is it possible without God?
The Christian Perspective
As Christians, we believe that objective morality is rooted in the nature of God. God is the perfect standard or the bar that we use to measure every other moral act. We need a standard outside of human opinion. If Christianity is true, we have a God who transcends any human ideas about right and wrong.
But what other explanations are there? How do non-theists explain morality?
I would guess that relativism is the one that people appeal to the most. In this view, there simply is no objective good or evil. All of our morality is either determined by personal opinion or cultural agreement. This view is consistent with atheism, but it does not make sense of the world we experience. Nobody lives like morality is all up to opinion. When something terrible happens to us, we call it unfair. When we see genocide or injustice internationally, we don’t just say, “Oh well. That’s just their morality.”
To accept this view is to accept majority rule. On this view, the rapist is following his morality. Martin Luther King would have been immoral for going against societal values. If relativism is true, morality collapses.
Some skeptics will try to ground their morality in evolution. They would say that it’s objective since it’s not up to opinion. Morality is simply built into us genetically. This view does not work. First, at best, this can tell you what is moral. It cannot tell you why something is moral. Maybe we have found that humans genetically evolved to know that murder is wrong. Why should we care? There are all kinds of natural impulses that we know are wrong. Our natural instincts often tell us to lie, indulge, attack, etc. Our natural impulses tend to be diametrically opposed to what we know is right.
Ironically, most of the moral laws we know are counter to evolutionary ideas. If our goal is survival, and natural selection is the law of the land, who cares if the strong oppress the weak? The man who sacrifices himself to save others would not be a hero, but a fool who was too weak to survive. Even if you believe in evolution, this is not enough to explain objective morality.
This is the view I am seeing most of the more thoughtful skeptics take, and it is more challenging to unpack. It has most famously been presented by skeptics like Sam Harris. The idea is to measure morality by conditions of human wellness or flourishing. Whatever makes humans more happy, healthy, free, etc., is the right thing to do. Racism would be wrong since it harms another person’s human wellness.
They say that this is objective since these are conditions we can measure scientifically. They recognize there is objective morality, and, for the most part, come to the right conclusions. However, they still cannot answer the why question. Why should anyone care about other people’s wellness? Why are freedom and happiness good things, other than that’s what people want? In the end, this still can never be truly objective since the values are still coming from human opinion. It can do a decent job in practically applying morality, but it lacks any foundation. Instead, it has to import it from other systems like theism that do have objective morality.
Some might respond with something like, “I don’t need God or the Bible to tell me that murder and rape are bad.” You’re right. We might not need a divine command to recognize that. However, we do need God to be able to argue that murder and rape are objectively wrong.
What best explains morality? If morality is objective, it requires a perfect standard to measure it by that transcends human opinion. Even if we can identify sound principles, without God, we are ultimately stuck with relativism.
There may be other explanations for objective morality put forth by skeptics. These are the three that I have seen the most and are the most likely to be encountered. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.
Discuss your thoughts for this post on our Facebook Group here.